For eight years now, I have planted my garlic in a very specific way. I climb on the tractor and till up one full length of our field. Then it’s a race to break apart, sort and sow thousands of garlic cloves. Before dusk comes, leaf or straw mulch must be spread over the entire area to protect the exposed and fragile soil. As one might imagine, such a project makes for a long workday. This year however, the deluge of October rains washed away my method. The soil has been simply too wet to till.
Farming is never, ever the same! I cycle between the confidence of my experiences and the humility of facing many unknowns. So many of the variables we farmers must navigate are imbued with a headstrong sort of energy that frequently defies the easy repeatability found on a manufacturing floor. Soil, seed, weather, water and our environs all collaborate but not always consistently. Really the only stagnant thing about farming is the human’s mindset—it’s never the work itself.
Which is why I’ve learned when such uncontrollable variables thwart my plans, it is best to humbly re-evaluate my purpose. When I have to start over, I like to go back to the basics. I try to tap into the bounty of a beginner’s mind, where anything is possible because nothing is mired in assumptions.
With respect to the fall rains, on one level, our goal was to overcome a soggy seeding challenge. But on another, our ultimate aim is one of land and community stewardship. As farmers we are tasked with sustaining a very important public service. If I get soil care right, we all have a chance at eating. If I get it wrong, garlic will be the least of our worries.
So, it is pure delight (read: on my List of Top 5 Joys of Farming) when a beginner’s method successfully overcomes a challenge in a way that is far superior to a previous ‘learned’ approach. When this sort of thing transpires, i.e. I not only recognize the invalidity of my approach, but I actually find a way to cease doing it? This sends me giddily OVER THE MOON.
In this fashion, we solve our garlic dilemma. Two shifts made the difference. First, we realized the tractor was entirely unnecessary. Second, we worked small. One after another, we did the next little, right thing.
Blessedly, early last week it stopped raining. On an afternoon walk through our field Brad and I pulled back one corner of the black plastic that had covered our summer cucumber bed. I plunged my hands in, squeezed a palm-full of soil and dropped it from a foot high back onto the ground. The soil crumbled apart nicely instead of sticking together in a big heavy clod. This was promising! Brad removed a fifteen foot section of the plastic mulch and hand raked the soil with our old, simple four-tine cultivating hoe. I gathered up only two of our six garlic varieties and a cart full of wheat straw shocks. I began breaking apart bulbs of the hardneck garlic named Music, while Brad removed the occasional aisle weeds and loosened the soil. Worm after earthworm appeared from under the old mulch. We rejoiced – knowing then how completely damaging and unnecessary tractor tilling would have been.
In two hours, we’d planted fifty feet of garlic. Over the next five days, in between rain showers, it would take only two more afternoons to complete our work. There was no rush. We could start and stop easily. At each juncture of this journey, I remained a beginner. Each next, little, right thing I experienced through fresh eyes. Bit by bit, we gave ourselves to the task, savoring the time it took, not belaboring the fact that it took time. This garlic planting was not grand, not overwhelming, not dominating. It was not tractor engine loud, fast paced or exhausting. Forced by the weather, I gave up the ways in which I had been told it should be done. I let go of so-called expert opinion and efficiency-at-all-cost. I started over. An intrigued novice, I had the luxury of awareness.
In the quiet of those few autumn days, I broke open each bulb while watching Brad carefully preparing the brunette-colored soil. I witnessed this beautiful work unfolding. Earthworms, soil structure, farmer health, community stewardship, all remained intact. A golden light reverberated off the glowing maple leaves and filled the sky with a richness that summer often lacks. I spent a few hours in an October farm field with the Loves of my Life.
Lesson after lesson, my profession keeps on handing out learning assignments. The 2016 garlic was a reminder in the value of beginning again, of starting small, of doing the next right thing with full awareness. Good Food. Grown with Love.
Susanville, Polish White, Red Toch, Music. As I inked the garlic names onto wooden stakes, I marked the moment as one that rekindled for me the pleasures, power and purpose of my journey. ~AJ
“If your mind is empty, it is ready for anything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” ~Shunryu Suzuki